Monday, May 26, 2014

The Four Feathers (1929)

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack                      Writer: Howard Estabrook
Film Score: William F. Peters                         Cinematography: Robert Kurrie
Starring: Richard Arlen, Fay Wray, William Powell and Noah Beery Sr.

Before Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack became forever associated with RKO studios though their work on King Kong, they were at Paramount making semi-documentaries as well as this picture. The Four Feathers is generally considered to be the last silent film ever made in the twenties. One of the things I love about it is the synchronized soundtrack. Later silent films, and even some older ones that were retrofitted at the time, benefit greatly from music tailor made for the images, especially when they include sound effects. Sure, they pale in comparison to Carl Davis originals, but they are so much better than random twenties music that usually gets thrown onto these films that it’s a blessing. Another joy in watching later silents is the appearance of sound film stars who hadn’t yet become household names. This picture gives audiences the chance to see Fay Wray and William Powell without the benefit of dialogue.

The film begins with Richard Arlen’s character as a child. The son of a great British general, he is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the army. But hearing of the exploits of his famous military family, even as a child, makes him wonder if he’ll have the courage when his time comes. In adulthood, recently promoted to lieutenant, he is set to marry Fay Wray, a daughter of another military family, but when he discovers his unit is about to be shipped to the Sudan for fighting he resigns his commission. His three best friends and fellow officers, Clive Brook, Theodore von Eltz, and William Powell then send him a box containing three white feathers, the symbol of cowardice, and when Wray finds out she adds a fourth. Then, when his humiliated father dies in front of him, Arlen makes a vow to go to Sudan and demonstrate so much courage that all of them will be forced to take their feathers back. In Africa he stays away from the soldiers, but is known as the only white man not in uniform. When he learns of an attack on the last remaining outpost in the area, and the capture of Powell, Arlen vows go infiltrate enemy territory and bring him back alive.

Of course, when Arlen goes into the prison to get Powell out he is inadvertently captured as well, and sold to slave trader Noah Beery. With the help of their young, black helper they manage to kill Berry and escape. After Powell takes back his feather, Arlen proceeds to earn back the respect of the others. Though it’s a highly contrived tale it is also very inspirational, which no doubt explains its lasting popularity and numerous remakes over the years. Richard Arlen, who had co-starred in the Oscar winning World War I drama Wings, is good here as the driven ex-officer looking to restore his honor. Fay Wray, already a veteran of silent films by this time, is radiant but has little to do other than a couple of scenes at the beginning and in the finale. William Powell is the most impressive as the captured officer who has given up all hope of surviving. Like many silent epics, the hundreds of extras in the battle scenes are impressive and would be even more so if someone were able to speed correct the film and attempt some kind of restoration.

The most obvious benefit to Cooper and Schoedsack’s involvement with the project is the African footage shot on location in the Sudan. In addition to their familiarity with the area, and an attempt to make the scenes with the natives realistic, the documentary footage that they had taken of animals that was integrated into the picture during the escape of Arlen and Powell from the slave traders is one of the most distinctive features of the film. Most of the film, however, was shot at the studio but it still looks good. The direction overall is fairly pedestrian but, again, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall production. The film score by William F. Peters seems a bit to jaunty most of the time, but it’s not off-putting either. In the end, The Four Feathers is a solid telling of the A.E.W. Mason novel and a unique film for the well-known personalities involved.

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